Tuesday, March 20, 2007

Men of Steel

It is obviously very tough to write a review for a Vampire Cowboys show, since I've become such a die-hard fan of their work. I mean, apart from writing, "Seriously folks, go see this show. Right. Now," there's not a whole lot left to say. But that isn't fair to the cast, crew and company to only write that, so I will expand.

So let's start from the beginning...

Many of you who either read this blog or know me know that I've had superheroes on the brain, seeing as how the script I've been working on for the past several months has been about superheroes. Many of you also know that I've known Qui Nguyen and Abby Marcus for a while now and have been a big fan of their and Robert Ross Parker's theatre company, Vampire Cowboys, for a while now as well. In fact, whenever a Vampire Cowboys play is going up, it's always a play I know I'm making the extra effort to go see, come hell or high water.

So when it was announced that Vampire Cowboys's latest, Men of Steel, would be an epic play about comic book-style superheroes, to paraphrase Richard Jeni, to say I was psyched to see it is kind of like saying the Atlantic Ocean is damp.

With the high level of expectation I had, Men of Steel, did not disappoint. In fact, this very well may be the best play that Vampire Cowboys has staged to-date (even with the absences of mainstay actors Dan Deming and Andrea Marie Smith); it's certainly the most ambitious script that Mr. Nguyen has written for the company.

Men of Steel opens in Chicago with Captain Justice (played by Jason Liebman), the greatest superhero the world has known, being arrested by the Chicago PD and his former partner, Liberty Lady (Melissa Paladino). See, Captain Justice experienced a personal tragedy and crossed that line that superheroes never cross in exacting revenge. Said personal tragedy may or may not have been instigated by Maelstrom (Temar Underwood), a vigilante crime-fighter lacking any superpowers but making up for it with plenty of gadgets and cunning (think a cross between Batman and Rorschach).

Meanwhile, in Brooklyn, two bumbling friends, Damon and Lukas (Paco Tolson and Noshir Dalal) decide to clean up their streets (which are completely ignored by the likes of Captain Justice and other super-types) as "Los Hermanos Manos" and, like Captain Justice, get themselves into some trouble with their inept crime-fighting.

Finally, in Mobile, Alabama, we meet Bryant (Tom Myers), a sweet-natured, mildly retarded and oft-abused drag queen who is superhumanly impervious to pain. Rather than fight crime, he uses this power to take a job letting frustrated men kick him repeatedly in the ribs. (In case you haven't guessed, this sequence is where the humor - which had been in abundance up until Bryant's story - disappears). He too, gets into a spot of trouble.

This is all the set-up for the second act. I won't reveal where this goes or how these multiple characters cross paths, since that's most of the fun of the show's finale.

Men of Steel is fun and engaging from start to finish, especially for us geeks who have such a fondness for superhero comics. Even for those of you who have never read a Spider-Man comic or played with a Star Wars action figure or even owned a LEGO set (you'll get the reference when you see the play), this is a great show. Mr. Robert Ross Parker's direction of Mr. Nguyen's script was (as it always is) lively and inventive and the cast (including Sharon Eisman and Jeremy Sarver), many members of whom are Vampire Cowboys regulars, is in-step with the company's aesthetic.

Despite the fun and silliness of the play's deliberate comic book style, Mr. Nguyen does bring up some interesting philosophical musings on what a world with superheroes would be like. Aside from Bryant's rather intense origin story, in another scene, a woman from Brooklyn explains the ghettoizing effect that superheroes have on the outer-boroughs:

CAMILLE. I'm pissed off because every single thug, criminal, and lowlife that once lived over there [in Manhattan] has come here [to Bushwick] because they know they can run freely without interference. Because everyone has gotten so dependent on heroes, no one is keeping an eye out anymore. Cops are getting drunk in the middle of their shifts ... Boys here are getting killed left and right tryin' to take up the slack that you officers have let go and that the heroes ignore.

Another thing that's interesting about Men of Steel is that there's very little fighting (relative to a Vampire Cowboys show). Don't get me wrong, there are some absolutely spectacular fight sequences (choreographed by Marius Hanford); but they're really used to bookend the piece.

Mr. Nguyen and Mr. Ross Parker lampoon the superhero genre nicely but also honor it as they clearly have a lot of love and affection for said genre, understanding the campy aspects yet relishing in them regardless (which is what make superhero comics so much fun to begin with). Yes, it's funny. Yes, seeing a grown man wearing tights and a cape is a bit silly. However, you don't mock the characters as you watch them: you genuinely care about them and take their conflicts seriously.

Many of you may be thinking writing about Vampire Cowboys's latest show is a conflict of interest, as the members of the company and Nosedive Productions are friends and have collaborated many times in the past (and will most likely do so in the future). To that I say "tough." I see absolutely no conflict of interest. Why not? Because I do expect a certain level of (high) quality whenever I see a show of theirs. Since I was not disappointed - in fact, my expectations were exceeded at times - I find no "conflict of interest" from telling readers of this space that yes, this play (and company) is absolutely worth your time and money.

Seriously folks, go see this show. Right. Now.

Men of Steel is playing at Center Stage until April 8. For tickets click here.

Faster than a speeding bullet,

James "The Comedian" Comtois

Photo: Temar Underwood as Maelstrom (left) and Jason Liebman as Captain Justice. Photo by Jim Baldassare.

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